If I didn't know better, I'd suspect country music legends entered in to an informal tontine some time in the mid-60s, pledging to play each other's best songs after the others had passed, all the way down to the last man standing.
Depending on who all you're willing to call a legend, Willie Nelson may or may not be the last one of his era still strumming a guitar. Either way, though, he's got an incredible catalog of songs to play -- his own and those he's inherited from friends who've passed on -- that he pulled from at his Dodge Theatre show on Sunday night. Playing to a graying, appreciative, crowd, the 75-year-old American icon seemed a little slow getting around the stage, and can't quite belt out vocals like he once did, but Willie showed why his concert is a quintessential American experience.
Taking the stage with "Whiskey River" as a giant Texas flag unfurled behind him, Nelson and his a five-piece Willie Nelson Family Band were tight. Nelson had no second guitar to back him up, but didn't seem to need it, playing a few loose, engaging guitar solos throughout the night. Longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael had plenty of chances to shine, soloing on number of songs, including a few nice bits on a trio of Hank Williams songs in the middle of the set (full setlist below). Billy English, the brother of Willie's longtime drummer Paul English is the only one who didn't make an impression on me. Well, at least not a good one, as I was turned off by the rainstick he used during "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain." Remember the rainstick, a Chilean knick-knack popular during the early-'90s rain forest fad? Yeah, pretty silly to include it in such a pretty song.
Highlights included a rousing version of the Carter Family's "Can the Circle Be Unbroken (By and By)," "Good-Hearted Woman" (dedicated to Phoenix's own Waylon Jennings) and "Me and Paul," a song built around some funny stories of the 40 years Willie's spent with his drummer.
The thing I expect to remember most about the show, though, is the way Willie spent the evening making every effort to connect with the crowd. Willie and his band are the sort of consummate professionals you'd picture playing their set the same way in an empty room, but Willie spent every spare moment on stage deftly tying red bandannas on his guitar neck, then wearing them for a song or two before tossing them to the appreciative crowd. After his encore-less set was over he took nearly 10 minutes to make his way slowly across the stage, shaking at least a hundred hands and signing everything in reach.
Willie looked winded as he finally made his way out of the spotlight -- but he also looked happy to have been out on stage for another night, carrying the torch.
1. "Whiskey River"
2. "Still is Still Moving to Me"
3. "Beer for my Horses"
4. "Funny How Time Just Slips Away"
5. "Night Life"
6. "Down Yonder" (Instrumental)
7. "Me and Paul"
8. "If You've Got The Money (I've Got The Time)"
9. "Blue Eyes Crying in The Rain"
10. "Good-Hearted Woman
11. "Jambalaya (On The Bayou)"
12. "Hey Good Lookin'"
13. "Move on Over"
15. "Georgia on My Mind"
16. "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys"
17. "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground"
18. "On The Road Again"
19. "Always on My Mind"
20. "Can the Circle Be Unbroken (By and By)"
21. "Help Me Make It Through the Night"
22. "Pick Up The Tempo"
23. "City of New Orleans"
24. "To All the Girls I've Loved Before"
25. "Rainy Day Blues"
26. "Bloody Mary Morning"
27. "I Saw The Light"
28. "I Ain't Superman"
29. "You Don't Think I'm Funny Anymore"
Last Night: Willie Nelson at Dodge Theatre
Better Than: Watching Walk the Line and wishing you'd seen an American legend when you had the chance.
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Personal Bias: Who doesn't love Willie?
Random Detail: I got a kick out of the woman at the ticket counter who wafted the air in the booth as we walked up, clearing the air from the customer before us. "Did you smell that?" she asked. We did not. "Marijuana!"
Further Listening: This is heresy to some, but I think I prefer the Arlo Guthrie version of "City of New Orleans" (a.k.a. "Good Morning, America, How Are You") If you haven't heard it, check it out.
By the Way: I got a kick out of my friend Jen, who went to the show with me, claiming that she is both a Good Hearted and Good Timin' woman. I'm not sure Waylon Jennings would agree that's possible.